My body has defined my self-image and self-esteem for an awfully large chunk of my life, almost all of it for the worse. I have not been satisfied with my body since I was 11, the age that I was forced to actually start caring about my body. It started in 5th grade. I was the first girl in my class to wear a bra and I believe I was also the first to get my period in 6th grade – though there was a rumor that it was either me or another girl.
All of it was too soon. I wasn’t emotionally ready. That onset was awfully early then. It came out of the blue without any preparation. I went from a carefree, confident, active girl, to a self-conscious, depressed, pubescent girl seemingly overnight. (I understand that my rate of development is more the norm now. In 1980, it was not.) My mom said it was because I have Mediterranean blood. Whatever. I didn’t care why. It was just devastating. It changed EVERYTHING.
My new, more “womanly” body soon led to trauma. It started verbally, with name-calling. In 6th grade I was named “llama,” intending to make fun of the size of my breasts. (The idiot boys thought a llama had humps.) Nonetheless, it rattled me. I hated the attention. I felt embarrassed. In 7th grade, the attention turned into physical abuse. Two boys decided that I, and my breasts, would be the target of their attention. One day, I walked out of homeroom and these boys came toward me and grabbed my breasts! They squeezed them HARD. It hurt. It was painful in every way possible. I was shocked! I was angry. But mostly I was terrified. I told no one. And seemingly nobody saw it happen.
This became a daily pattern. Still I told no one. I began holding my books over my chest to protect myself. They were not deterred. They stalked me everyday. I don’t remember how long this went on. It seemed like forever, and I felt trapped. And still, I told no one – not my trusted, feminist mother, not the Principal, not even my friends. I felt responsible somehow. I felt ashamed somehow.
Looking back I am outraged. I realize now that I was sexually harassed and assaulted. I realize now that my response then was a typical victim reaction: “What am I doing to bring this on?” “Are my shirts too tight or revealing?” “Am I flaunting my breasts?” “I must be doing something wrong.”
These experiences associated with my body and all the changes that go along with a growing body, including some weight gain, (like 5 lbs. – though it felt like 50!), led to pathological thoughts and behaviors. I became “fat.” I began taking diet pills. I began purging in the bathroom at school. Then I began purging at home. I continued to obsess over my body. Diet pills led to experimentation with other drugs and alcohol. And downhill I went, self-esteem and all.
I eventually got help for the drug and alcohol use. This led to weight loss and my self-esteem and confidence returned. I even began to like my body. After all, it was thinner – 34″ 24″ 34.” I weighed 113 lbs. I was happy, not just because of my body of course, but it was a factor.
When I was in college, my body became a pathological issue again. My male doctor told me that I could “stand to drop a few pounds.” (At that point I probably weighed 115 lbs., hardly a health hazard.) And for context, not that his comment would have merit otherwise, he was my dermatologist! His is remark had absolutely no relevance in terms of my health and he had no business saying it.
Given my ongoing body image issues and related experiences, this sent me spinning. This time I didn’t purge, I simply stopped eating. My goal was to have my thighs not touch. For some reason, that was my standard for an acceptable body. Every day I would look in the mirror, waiting for them to slim down. I vividly recall the day when I looked in the full length mirror for the millionth time and finally my thighs didn’t touch.
Over the years, my weight has gone up and down, and my self-image has always been tied to it. While I recovered from the eating disorder, I still, more than thirty years later, pay very close attention to my body’s appearance, to my detriment. It continues to be an issue. I am still self-conscious. I still look at myself with eyes that seek “the perfect body.” I feel attractive or unattractive as the case may be as a result.
I have grown up comparing myself to some external standard of beauty, a male standard of what is beautiful, and the importance it holds. I know this to be a common obsession, if not an epidemic, among American girls and women. I know that I was not and am not alone in this, but for years I suffered alone as I know others have.
I have read The Beauty Myth, by Naomi Wolf, Our Bodies, Ourselves, and other important feminist writings. I get it, intellectually. I could go on and on about how the media’s images of women set the largely unattainable bar for women’s bodies, where being “thin” is the ultimate goal in order to be attractive in a man’s eyes – the inference being that women should care about being attractive to men. I could go on and on about the patriarchal society that breeds this “social control” over women. It is real. It is pervasive. It is insidious.
I still buy-into it at age 47, less so but it’s there. It’s like it’s in my DNA. Now it manifests itself in intense workouts in the name of “health.” And while being healthy is important to me, the full truth is that a large part of my focus on fitness is about being or getting thin. I am still chasing a better body. Not necessarily in weight, but certainly still measured in size and shape.
I’m ecstatic to see a shift happening to redefine the beauty standard for women’s bodies. Thanks to the groundwork laid by the second wave of the feminist movement in the late sixties, over time women have begun to reject this ingrained standard and to say so. The movie industry, and even the modeling industry, is slowly starting to change the messages to and the images of what constitutes a beautiful woman. While thin is still very much in, it’s becoming a little less important than it used to be. A “healthy looking” body is becoming more the standard.
Better yet, not only is the standard of beauty for women being rejected, the focus on a woman’s looks is being called-out, which is arguably more important. From my perspective, there is far to much importance placed on how a woman looks. It is harmful to girls and women in every possible way – emotionally, physically, culturally, and even economically to the extent it impacts earning power and clout in the workplace. It undermines women’s worth and equality and power.
May future generations of women be spared this dysfunctional obsession with their looks and instead, commit to being strong and healthy, taking good care of themselves from the inside out. That would be truly beautiful. In the absence of a society that values women and men equally, may the quest for the holy grail of beauty be decided by women, and women alone.
With love and empowerment,
P.S. Thanks for reading. I would love some engagement. What are your experiences with body image issues? What is your perspective on the standards of beauty for women? Comments?